How do we know that we are truly Christian?
One of the most haunting passages I have ever read in the Bible is Matthew 7:21-23:
[Jesus said:] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The reason this passage haunts me is because I sometimes wonder if I’m the guy saying, “Lord, Lord.” I’ve been in church a long time, delivered a lot of sermons, prayed a lot of prayers, and led a lot of small groups. But if even prophets and miracle workers don’t necessarily make the final cut on judgment day, how can I know that I will?
First John 4:13-18 offers believers three grounds for assurance of salvation: the experience of the Spirit, the truth about the Savior, and loving action in the world. In this Daily Word, we’ll look briefly at the Spirit and the Savior; in the next one, we’ll look at loving action. For now, let’s focus on verses 13-16a:
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
In these verses, the experience of the Spirit is the first ground of assurance for the believer. John writes, “[God] has given us of his Spirit.” What does this refer to? It refers, first of all, to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. According to Galatians 4:6, it is the Spirit who helps us call out to God “Abba, Father”—and more importantly, to mean it. Second, it refers to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 outline nine virtues that only the Spirit can produce in our hearts, virtues that lead to positive actions. Finally, it refers to the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12:7-11 lists the gifts in all their variety. When the believer experiences the Spirit in these ways, he or she can begin to have assurance of salvation.
The second ground of assurance is the truth about the Savior. For John, the truth is that “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” When a person believes this truth, he or she can be assured that “God lives in him and he in God.” The objectivity of belief is an important counterpart to the subjectivity of experience. Our feelings as Christians are (and must be) grounded in the truth of what God has done for us through his Son Jesus Christ.
In the next Daily Word, we will talk about how subjective experience combines with objective truth to produce effective action in the world, for such action is also grounds for assurance of salvation.